Posted June 2001 


REVIEW: STAGES OF THOUGHT: The Co-Evolution of Religious Thought and Science, by Michael Horace Barnes. Oxford University Press, New York, 2000. 


          This is a very important book in terms of my thinking about development. In my web site I consider three dimensions of development: human, technological, and collective, or organizational. (Human development here refers to individual development a la Piaget.) Professor Barnes chooses the broader concept of culture, which includes but goes well beyond organization, for his collective dimension of development.   


Angkor Wat 1955

          A major advantage of Barnesí idea of cultural development, over my simpler ideas of organizational development, is his recognition that, although individuals everywhere are capable of the most advanced methods of thought, these levels are not available to many people until institutions and technologies have evolved for inculcating and disseminating them. Schools and universities built up over centuries in advanced cultures vastly increase the number of people in a society that achieve the ability to function at advanced levels. At the same time, individuals from societies that have not as yet achieved such advanced institutions can and do benefit from such institutions in advanced countries and achieve comparable levels of thought. 

           In this paper I want first to present Barnesí argument; then to look at the implications of his perspective for development strategists.


          Barnes argues that cultures exhibit stages of complexity that are analogous to the stages of human development identified by Piaget. Like human development, succeeding cultural stages incorporate and go beyond preceding stages. Individuals and cultures continue to access and utilize earlier forms of thought in everyday life, even though they become capable of employing more complex and abstract thinking where necessary and appropriate. Moreover, relatively few people in a culture achieve the more advanced thinking capabilities available in a society, but all tend to benefit from the advanced institutions and technologies created by those functioning at advanced modes of thought.

          Unlike individual development, cultures can regress from a higher stage to a lower in the course of history. Barnes cites the early Middle Ages as an example. I donít believe Barnes gives enough attention to the role of technology in creating the environment for individual growth, but his main purpose is to demonstrate that cultures can progress through stages paralleling individual development, and then to use that observation as a platform to examine the co-evolution of religious and scientific thought. 

          The general thesis of the book has two major aspects: that cultural development often includes the development of new and more complex styles of thinking and expression that affect religion, science, and other realms of thought; and that some of these developments resemble the pattern of individual cognitive development as described by Jean Piaget. More precisely:

  1. There are different fundamental styles of thinking, different cognitive techniques, recognizable in the expression of religious beliefs, in science, in philosophical reasoning, and other cognitive activities;
  2. The more difficult of these styles of thinking will appear only later in an individualís development because of a need for experience, training, and continuing maturation of the brain;
  3. Piagetís work is a fairly accurate guide to the basic styles of thinking that people learn as they develop;
  4. A culture may maintain a simpler, easier style of thought as its dominant style for many centuries, even if some individuals go beyond the cultureís general achievement;
  5. People everywhere share the same basic human intelligence, but some cultures have discovered cognitive tools to promote more complex and difficult cognitive styles, and to educate an increasing number of people in their use;
  6. The most difficult cognitive styles are mastered in any culture only by a relatively few people, who nonetheless have significant impact on the general nature of the culture; and
  7. The actual history of religious thought in major cultures exhibits a sequence of development of thought styles suggested by the prior six points, a development which science has shared.

Professor Barnes uses the familiar stages Piaget found in childhood as guidelines for categorizing the stages cultures pass through. The preoperational stage, involving a substantial amount of magic, is the mode of thought of children between the ages of two and seven. Primitive societies, those having invented language but not writing and surviving mainly by hunting and gathering, bear a relationship to the preoperational stage of individual development. In such societies, tradition and commonsense observation determine what is true. People believe in spirits, but donít worship them. These societies tend to be egalitarian, without hereditary rulers, although an individual may rise to a position of leadership by virtue of superior strength or skill at using shamanic practices.

          Concrete operational thought, beginning around age seven, is grounded in reality. Thinking tends to be realistic or commonsensical, but traces of the magic remain. This style of thought is the way most of us operate on an everyday basis. Barnes finds archaic culture significantly related to the concrete operations level. These cultures are based upon written language and often feature a hierarchy of power, as in Pharaonic Egypt. Instead of spirits, these cultures generally have a number of gods, who rule various domains of life. The invention of writing makes possible the construction of more elaborate myths concerning origins and the future. 

          Formal operational thought is the next Piagetian stage, beginning around age twelve. At this stage, the capacity for abstract and hypothetical thinking is developed. People functioning at this stage seek a basis of ordering data, of making sense of disparate experience by adopting some explanatory scheme or theory. The great classical cultures, which began around 2,500 years ago, are to Barnes the cultural equivalent of formal operational thought. The basic notion of the unity of all reality arose almost simultaneously in China, India, Judea, and Greece. Priests or theologians consciously sought to codify and explain reality in systematic and universal terms. Logical coherence became the most important test for truth.

          Only in the past few centuries have individuals and cultures evolved beyond the certitudes of classical society. We still construct logically coherent systems to explain phenomena, but experience has shown that theories once considered unassailable may turn out to be false on the basis of better evidence and further reflection. The impact of the skepticism of modern science is evident in all phases of our belief systems.

          Modern culture evolves from the realization that neither commonsense observation, nor tradition, nor logical explanatory theorizing is entirely reliable. We must engage in continual public empirical testing of even our most cherished beliefs because all such products of human thinking must be considered conditional and tentative. The society that emerges when its upper strata are thinking reflectively is likely to be oligarchic or democratic. No single leader is likely to stand for very long the continual testing that such a society demands.

          Professor Barnes is careful to assert that modern culture is not exclusively Western, although most Western societies have evolved further in the direction of modernity than most non-Western cultures. He devotes an entire chapter to criticisms of theories of cultural evolution, to criticisms of Piagetís ideas, and to criticism of Piagetian theories of cultural evolution.       

To summarize his argument, Professor Barnes, using Piagetís theory of individual development as a guide to his empirical research, focuses on the pattern of cultural development in the areas of religion and science, in different civilizations. He finds that cognitive dimensions of religious and scientific thought develop in parallel ways with cognitive development of individuals. He provides impressive evidence of these parallels, especially in the case of Western civilization. 


          Barnes is a professor of philosophy interested in the co-development of religion and science, but those of us interested in the implications of his theory for development strategy might draw additional implications from his work. In my introduction to this website, I argue that the modernization of individuals in traditional cultures is not only inevitable, but also desirable. Only when individuals and institutions have advanced from traditional levels will they acquire the ability to deal with an inexorably changing world. In the context of the effort by leaders in both industrialized and developing countries to bring about orderly modernization, Barnesí thinking prompts some of the following observations:

1.  Modernization vs. Westernization

The notion that modernization is simply Westernization is the most difficult to deal with. Critics of Singapore deplore the loss of ethnic identity manifested by its Chinese, Indian and Malay citizens. Japan is a more complex case. Certainly MacArthur forcibly introduced Western political forms and values to the society, but there can be no mistaking the Japanese character of the modern society. The differences between Japanese style of management and Western management is an example of cultural distinction, but even in that case, both cultures have learned a great deal from each other in post-war years.

          I doubt that the Westernization/modernization issue is one that can ever be solved. Tension will continue between imported modes of thought and technologies and traditionalists who deplore the loss of old ways. I suspect that adaptations of Western imports will continue so they fit better with local customs and traditions, but the basic drive towards modernization will eventually succeed around the world. The drive towards increasing complexity and higher levels of skills is impelled, not just by the desire for more goods and comfort, but by the sheer numbers of people seeking to survive in the space used by a fraction of that number in ancient times. More efficient and effective technologies become necessary to sustain greater human density on the land, and the new technologies bring with them changes in values, attitudes and beliefs.

2.  Assessing development activities

Once the development task is defined as the transformation of traditional into modern culture, and the transformation of an increasing proportion of people in that culture from concrete operational thinking to formal operational thinking, it becomes possible to evaluate more accurately activities meant to promote development.

Development activities should be evaluated not just for their profitability and employment creation benefits, but also for their impact upon the workers who participate in them. One highly developmental program is to make available in rural areas small loans for productive purposes. Time and again, micro-credit projects have been found highly productive in economic terms, while their impact on the individual borrowers has gone unnoticed. The creation of opportunities for individuals through the provision of micro-credit is extremely effective in human development terms because their aspirations can grow and their personal challenges increase.

3.  Emphasis on education and training is clearly a priority for developing countries, but problems arise in efforts to provide it.

One problem is that it is very expensive, more than is feasible, for a poor country to develop an education extensive system. Secondly, the poor quality of past education restricts the expansion of education systems because qualified teachers are rare. If one learned by rote, it is difficult to bring better methods to bear in the classroom. 

In practice, governments often expand education systems at all levels faster than they can afford in terms of the quality offered. 

Singapore dealt with this problem by requiring large firms to offer training to their employees, and then gradually raising the minimum wage to force firms to raise the productivity of their workers through mechanization. Multinationals were actively courted by the Singapore government, and provided with benefits, but required to raise the quality of their workforce over time. In effect, the corporations that profited from Singaporeís labor provided the training that enabled the society as a whole to advance. This was not due to the generosity of the multinationals. They were required to train workers, not only by regulation, but by the gradual increase in the minimum wage which forced manufacturers to become more mechanized in order to afford to pay higher wages. (See my application to the MacArthur Foundation) 

4.  Graduate education in advanced countries for students from developing societies is important. 

In the modern world, cultures affect one another in a variety of ways. Marketing, media, and tourism are pervasive and their impact on traditional societies is often to be regretted. Graduate education abroad generally has more salutary effects. The student can evaluate the fit of the institutions and technology she encounters with the conditions at home. She can interpret customs and mores and determine which practices would be useful if adapted to home conditions.

Graduate study abroad can also be disruptive, of course, to both the individual and the society to which she returns. In Ethiopia in the early 1960ís, when I lived there, those who had studied abroad were referred to as the ďbeen-tosĒ. They had been to the US or the UK and that set them apart from their domestically educated age group, and generated a certain amount of friction between the groups. 

Individually, the disturbance can also be acute. In Beirut in the 1970ís, a Shi-ite with a PhD in business administration from Ohio State told me poignantly that he should either never have gone to the United States, or he should have remained there. The strain of having roots on each side of the water was tearing him apart.

5.  Political institutions and organizations need to be geared to the level of the culture prevailing in a society.

This seemingly obvious idea is in fact ignored all the time by Western observers, the media, and the Department of State. We fail to make a distinction between repressive dictatorship and enlightened, but authoritarian, government. None of the Asian tigers developed under ideal democratic conditions. Some of the governments were in fact repressive, but most, like Hong Kong and Singapore were authoritarian (or colonial) without repression. Those governments produced the fastest development of all, not just of their economies but also of their individual citizens. The emergence of a population of healthy, educated, skilled people in two generations must be weighed against restrictions on political and media expression during the growth period of their societies. To me, it is obvious that we must recognize that rapid development, not just economic but more importantly human development, must have more importance than the immediate enjoyment of the full range of freedoms of expression common to advanced countries. 


          I owe Professor Barnes a great debt for the careful and thorough way in which he presents the argument for cultural evolution paralleling Piagetian stages. To me, this does not detract from multiculturism, because respect is due to societies at all stages of development provided they do not repress the opportunities of their citizens for further growth. By making clear that people from all societies are equally capable of achieving the highest levels of development, he draws attention to the conditions that foster human development. He thereby helps development strategists clarify their objectives more accurately than in the past.

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